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Week 3: Toibin's 'The Blackwater Lightship'

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Anne Jamison

on 12 August 2018

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Transcript of Week 3: Toibin's 'The Blackwater Lightship'

Colm Toibin's
The Blackwater Lightship
Family, Homosexuality, and
Mother Ireland

The Family and the Irish Nation
"It is about mothering; and this is a gay issue in the book only because those most proficient in the craft turn out to be a couple of homosexual men."

Terry Eagleton, 'Mothering', in
London Review of Books
, 21.20 (1999): 9.
"She realised from the way he spoke that he considered her an outsider, a remote figure who had to be brought into the picture. Declan, she thought, had replaced his family with his friends. She wished he had thought of her as a friend."

Colm Toibin,
The Blackwater Lightship
(New York: Scribner, 1999), p. 34.
What does family mean in Ireland?

1.1 The State recognises the Family as the natural, primary, and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable ... rights antecedent and superior to all positive law ...

2.1 In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

2.2 The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

1937 Constitution of Ireland, Article 41 'The Family'
Homosexuality and the Alternative Family
"May Irish mothers, young women and girls not listen to those who tell them, that working at a secular job, succeeding in a secular profession, is more important than the vocation of giving life and caring for this life as a mother ... I entrust this to Mary bright Sun of the Irish Race."

Pope John Paul II (1979)

Qtd. in
Women's Lifeworlds: Women's Narratives on Shaping Their Realities
, ed. Edith Sizoo (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 157.
Conflation of religious and nationalist discourse
Irish Nationalism
Roman Catholic veneration of Mary
"OLD WOMAN. It is a hard service they take that help me. Many that are red-cheeked now will be pale-cheeked; many that have been free to walk the hills and the bogs and the rushes will be sent to walk hard streets in far countries; many a good plan will be broken; many that have gathered money will not stay to spend it; many a child will be born and there will be no father at its christening to give it a name. They that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake, and for all that, they will think they are well paid.

They shall be remembered for ever,
They shall be alive for ever,
They shall be speaking for ever,
The people shall hear them for ever.


PETER. Did you see an old woman going down the path?
PATRICK. I did not, but I saw a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen."

W. B. Yeats, "Cathleen Ni Houlihan", in Modern Irish Drama, ed. John P. Harrington (New York: Norton, 1991), pp. 10-11.
Maude Gonne (1866-1953)
Both nationalist and unionist discourses depict Ireland as a disempowered woman
"'Do you know what Ireland is?' asked Stephen with cold violence. 'Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.'"

James Joyce,
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
(London: Penguin, 1992), p. 220.
"It is after all sometimes very difficult to ascertain where church began and state ended in regard to the institutionalization of individuals, public health and education ... National identities are structured by the binary of them and us, insiders and outsiders, natives and foreigners ... the dominant ideology of state and nation was for most of the twentieth century extraordinarily narrow and exclusive ... The promulgation of the image of the Virgin Mary as 'Queen of Ireland' is on one level just another permutation of the Virgin-Whore dichotomy at the heart of Western culture's representation of women. That dichotomy acquired a very particular paranoid intensity in twentieth-century Ireland, however, which is linked to both the history of colonialism and the compensatory urge to promote an essential Irishness that was purer - in effect whiter - than other European races ... Marianism [the veneration of Mary] was a badge of national identity sponsored by the post-independence southern state as well as the Catholic Church ... The conflation of images of Mother Ireland and Virgin Mary in Irish populist Catholic nationalism deployed the Virgin Mother's status as epitome of whiteness as a guarantee of Irish (racial) purity."

Gerardine Meaney,
Gender, Ireland and Cultural Change: Race, Sex and Nation
(New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 5-7.
The Conflation of Church and State in Ireland
The Family and the Irish Nation

the traditional family unit is the foundational building block of the Irish nation, a symbol of national unity, as well as a moral and religious compass for the nation.

women play a central role within the family unit as mothers and keepers of the home.

women's bodies, sexuality, reproductive and social functions are governed by the twinned ideals of Irish nationalism and Irish Catholicism.

Men are largely dis-cluded from the nation's discourse on parenting and domestic life.
Homosexuality and the Law in Ireland and Britain

1533 - Sodomy criminalised in Britain by Act of Henry VIII and penalised by death and forfeiture of property.
1861 - Offences Against the Person Act reinforces a prohibition against male homosexual acts, but reduces the sentence from hanging to a life-long prison sentence.
1885 - Section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act – the La Bouchere Amendment – renders any and all male homosexual acts illegal.
1895 - Oscar Wilde convicted of ‘gross indecency’ at the Old Bailey, London, and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.
1922 - Irish Free State adopts British laws against homosexuality.
1967 - Sexual Offences Act in Britain decriminalises consensual adult homosexuality [this law is not applied to Northern Ireland].
1982 - Sexual Offences Act extended to Northern Ireland.
1988 – European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg rules that Irish laws on homosexuality contravene Article 8 of the Convention of Human Rights.
1989 – Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act includes homosexuals and is functioned to protect gays and lesbians from harassment.
1993 – Law Reform Act decriminalises consensual adult homosexuality in Ireland.

"The ideology adopted by the new State as a symbol of national unity was both Catholic and nationalist. It was an ideology that glorified rural Irish life and romanticised the Catholic family. The problem for women was that this family was rigidly defined and patriarchal. The only roles for women were as wives and mothers; women were denied economic independence, were discouraged from taking employment and had very limited rights."

Jenny Beale,
Women in Ireland
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987) p. 6.

Mary Robinson (1944- )
"After I qualified I was in a gay group in Dublin, and we organised fund-raising and we started a news sheet, and we had meetings all the time. I helped out a bit, and I was around a lot, so the time Mary Robinson invited gay men and lesbians to Aras an Uachtarain, I was on the list and I couldn't say no. It was a big deal. We really enjoyed getting ready for it. I know it sounds stupid, but we thought that because the law still hadn't been changed it might just be a private visit. Anyway, all the newspapers were there, and radio and television. Mary Holland was there and a fellow from RTE, it wasn't Charlie Bird, I can't remember his name, but I realised he was from the six o'clock news and they were going to film us all having tea with the President ... we all loved her."

Colm Toibin,
The Blackwater Lightship
(New York: Scribner Press, 1999), p. 144.
"Many liberals blamed the aggressive 'family values' of the period for what they saw as official tolerance of anti-gay violence. In 1983, a gang of young men chased a gay man, Declan Flynn, through a Dublin park and then beat him to death; after their conviction, the judge gave them a suspended sentence. Nor were things better in Ulster, where the 1967 liberalization of British law on homosexuality did not apply. When, in 1975, 23 gay men who had tried to organize a gay rights movement were arrested, they appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. In 1977, the Northern Irish Human Rights Commission recommended reform of laws on homosexuality and the British government announced that liberalization would be forthcoming. At this news, Ian Paisley launched his infamous 'Save Ulster from Sodomy' campaign, gathering 70,000 signatures in favour of keeping homosexual acts criminalized.The British government threw up its hands, claiming that it could not carry our reforms in the face of so much opposition from both Catholics and Protestants ... The Department of Health [in Ireland] was slow to provide information about AIDS prevention on the view that it might be taken as information about gay sex."

Margaret Scanlan,
Culture and Customs of Ireland
(Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006), pp. 84-5.
"In Irish cultural discourse, silencing sexual difference became imperative because of a supposed link between homosexuality and enfeebled ‘feminised’ masculinity. The post-colonial struggle to escape the influence of the colonising power became a struggle to escape the gendered relation of male coloniser to female colonised. Therefore the post-colonial culture could not permit any public, ideological acknowledgement of the sexual ‘other’."

Eibhear Walshe,
Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing
(Cork: Cork University Press, 1997), p. 5.

"… by welcoming an often excluded and stigmatised community into the symbolic home of all Irish people, you are creating a powerful image which will work to heal the wounds of prejudice."

Kieran Rose, qtd. in Uinsionn Mac Dubhghaill, ‘Gay and lesbian groups received by President’,
Irish Times,
14 December 1992, City Ed., p. 5.

"[Irish gay and lesbian writers] find themselves … working within a system that is highly fluid, legally (if precariously) protected yet still subject to a homophobia deeply embedded in the country’s social and cultural institutions."

Gerry Smyth,
The Novel and the Nation
(London: Pluto Press, 1997), p. 157.

"'There's something I will never forget about the funeral,' her mother said. 'It's hard to talk about it. Coming home like that from Dublin and your father so young, and everybody looking and watching, there was a sort of shame about it. It sounds mad, doesn't it? I know it does, but that's what it felt like, so exposed, or maybe that isn't the word. But it felt like shame, those days after he died when we came home.'"

Colm Toibin
, The Blackwater Lightship
(New York: Scribner, 1999), p. 244.
"'And I made a promise that day in the chapel, after they'd taken his body out of the ward, that I'd do my best with you and Declan, that I'd try and be as good as the two of us would have been ... but I don't suppose, looking at it now, that I did very well.'"

Colm Toibin,
The Blackwater Lightship
(New York: Scribner, 1999), p. 242.
"'During the Easter holidays, when I told my mother about America, she instantly became hysterical, and asked me what my grandmother was going to do ... you can imagine the screaming and shouting and the letters that followed me to Dublin in case I had not properly understood. She didn't threaten to cut me off, or anything like that, but it was all full of stuff about my father and my grandfather and the two of them - my mother and my grandmother - left alone now and needing the support of those around them ... And where was Declan during all of this? He was on his first summer holidays after his first year doing Pharmacy in college and what was he doing? Was he washing out the floor of his grandmother's so-called guest house? No, he was working as a ticket seller in a cinema in Leicester Square in London, and he was, as he will tell you himself, having the time of his life.'"

Colm Toibin,
The Blackwater Lightship
(New York: Scribner, 1999), pp. 178-182.
The breakdown of the family unit is set against the death of the father figure, but also the fragmentation of the traditional gendered values and roles of the Irish family as dictated by both church and state.

Arguably, all three women in the novel fail to live up to the ideals of Irish motherhood:

Dora is unable to bear a second child and is refused adoption;

Lily feels she has failed in her maternal role;

and Helen rejects the domestic role thrust upon her by her mother and grandmother.
Amendments to the law do not automatically signal cultural and social change
"'when I saw you, I said to myself - here's another of them now.'"
p. 110.

"'how long have you known that he had friend like Paul?'"
p. 141.
"'At least if I was in the IRA we would have something to talk about. It'd be more normal.'"
p. 146.
Larry, Paul, and their circle of gay friends, prove the most effective as nurturers and replace traditional mother figures and family units in the novel.
Through their care of Declan, Paul and Larry demonstrate an alternative and successful model of mothering.

Through their differences, the three central gay figures in the novel challenge stereotypes of gay men.

Paul's marriage offers an alternative to traditional marital union.
Novel challenges cultural attitudes towards homosexuality in Ireland, and also offers alternative models of family life.
"'He would come for long weekends and he'd make us hang out in bars and clubs with him, and he'd usually abandon us at a certain time and then come back home in the early hours like a half-drowned dog. My best memory of him was in the morning; he would crawl in the bottom of our bed. He was like a small boy, and he'd talk and doze and play with our feet. Francois always joked about adopting him; he even bought a child's pyjamas for him as a joke and folded them on his bed.'"

Colm Toibin,
The Blackwater Lightship
(New York: Scribner, 1999), p. 174.
"She forced herself to think that this was her house, where she lived, and it could not be taken away from her now. But she could not step out from her mother's dark shadow. When she turned in the kitchen to face her, she was shocked to find how helpless and broken her mother seemed. In those first moments, as they walked down the hallway to the kitchen, she had imagined someone forceful and pushy coming behind her, determined to stop her having her life. Instead, her mother looked bewildered and shocked."

Colm Toibin,
The Blackwater Lightship
(New York: Scribner, 1999), p. 272.
"'I'd love to come out here to your house for my tea' ... I could see the boys. And then I'd drive home ... And that's what's keeping me going, Helen, that's what I ream about now, that you and I could sit here talking about nothing, and watch the boys playing and Hugh coming in and out of the room. And I could stand up and go, and it would be all easy and casual. That's what I dream about now.'"

Colm Toibin,
The Blackwater Lightship
(New York: Scribner, 1999), p. 273.
Sacrifice in the name of the motherland.
Transformation of the nation.
Lecture Learning Objectives

1. How has Catholic/Nationalist Ireland traditionally viewed the role of women in family and civic life?

2. In what ways can Helen, Lily, and Dora be seen to fail in living up to the expectations of traditional Irish womanhood?

3. How does Toibin's novel challenge traditional thinking about homosexuality in Ireland?
1. How has Catholic/Nationalist Ireland traditionally viewed the role of women in family and civic life?
The Dysfunctional Family
2. In what ways can Helen, Lily, and Dora be seen to fail in living up to the expectations of traditional Irish womanhood?
3. How does Toibin's novel challenge traditional thinking about homosexuality in Ireland?
Larry, Declan, and Paul in the movie adaptation of
The Blackwater Lightship
Without the traditional father figure at the head of the family, Lily is forced to adopt an alternative parenting role which goes against the traditions of motherhood in Ireland.
"So I wrote back and told her I had a job, thank you. And then the next day the two of them arrived up to Dublin; they were waiting in the car outside my door in Baggot Street, white-faced both of them, when I arrived home after work ... they marched me to the Shelbourne Hotel ... They sat me down and, as they would put it, tried to talk some sense into me ... I realised that the plan was that I would skivvy for my mother the way I had done for my granny, perhaps even commute between them. They had bought notepaper and envelopes with them, and they wanted me to write a letter to Synge Street saying that I would not be accepting their job ..."

Colm Toibin,
The Blackwater Lightship
(New York: Scribner, 1999), pp. 181-182.
Dora's inability to bear a second child, and to bear a son, marks her out, like her daughter Lily, as having failed the proscribed role for Irish women.
Helen feels constrained by the domestic role her mother and grandmother want her to adopt and also recognises the gendered attitudes of these two women in their treatment of her and Declan.
Homosexuality, as well as homosexual marriage and partnerships, are validated in the novel. This is a challenge to the Irish nation.
Reconciliation is brought about through Helen and Lily's mutual care for Declan.
"I saw them the following Christmas because Declan called to my flat and implored me to come down with him, which I did. The reception was very frosty. I nearly spat when they tried to stop him doing half the washing-up with me.

Colm Toibin, The Blackwater Lightship (New York: Scribner, 1999), p. 183.
Gendered division of labour.
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